On the cover of The Greatest Odia Stories Ever Told, is a drawing of a strange creature, composed of parts from nine different animals. Leelawati Mohapatra, Paul St-Pierre, and KK Mohapatra, the editors of the book, tell us in their preface how this creature, the ‘Navagunjara’, originates from the first Odia Mahabharata. The creature represents the broad range of human emotions, they say, and so do the 24 stories in this well-titled book.
The short story genre in Odia is more recent than some other languages—being only about a 120 years old. But this collection makes it apparent that even in this short period, Odia short stories have evolved and kept up with the times.
The first few stories follow the Chekhovian mould of focusing on a seemingly straightforward character and bringing out his complexity. So, Godabarish Mohapatra talks of Maguni, the driver of a bullock cart that ferries passengers to and from the railway station, and how the times deprive him of his livelihood. Mohapatra Nilamoni Sahoo chronicles Uddhav Malik, a watchman who interprets the freedom struggle through the lens of mythology and dharma.
Other movements in the form are represented here, too. We have magical realism, represented by ‘The Tale of the Snake Charmer’ by Chandrasekhar Rath, where a snake charmer is smitten by a young girl, and, in the words of various witnesses, either becomes a snake or dies. Then there’s Manoj Das’ story ‘Mrs Crocodile’, featuring a woman who claims—and believes—that she spent 10 years living underwater with her reptilian husband.
The latter section of the book has more modern short stories. The short story form, in India, has evolved in a somewhat different way from the global norm. Concern with social injustices, especially women’s rights, the caste system, and the increasing reach of far-right religion, has been the main topic of short stories both in journals and story collections. So the focus is on the storyline and character circumstances, rather than on the more experimental aspects of syntax and language. ‘Patadei’ by Binapani Mohanty talks of how women are expected to conform to societal norms by the very people who take advantage of their powerlessness.
‘Salvation’ by Pratibha Ray chronicles the lives of two souls who are bound together by fate, living in the same house, but unable to close the gap all their lives. ‘The Mantra’ by Jagannath Prasad Das describes an encounter between a swami and a housewife who hovers between belief and boredom.
This is not to say there are no experimental stories. ‘News of the Day’ by Kanheilal Das links globe-spanning events, as found in a newspaper, to a very personal tragedy. ‘Longing for Ramakanta Rath’ by Nrusingha Tripathy describes an unusual four-cornered love affair with one person represented purely by his poetry.
In the spirit of explaining the evolution of the Odia short story, the editors have included two landmark stories as appendices—the first-ever Odia short story, and the first-ever such story written by a woman. These stories may seem somewhat dated, but when read as inspiration for a 100-plus years of work, they acquire their own sheen.
There is an appealing earthy quality about this whole collection. Although they cover multiple eras in the form, from traditional to modern, the contents of the stories are rooted in villages and small towns. They feature characters that we recognise instinctively from our more innocent days as a society—bullock cart drivers, farmers, or the anonymous clerk in a government office.
The concerns expressed are universal, the language is direct and appealing. Special mention must be made of the translation, which is smooth enough for the reader to almost forget about it. Overall, this volume is an excellent and wide-ranging selection of stories, conveying the reach and concerns of an entire art form within 200-odd pages. Highly recommended.
|The Greatest Odia Stories Ever Told by Leelawati Mohapatra, Paul St-Pierre, KK Mohapatra
Price: Rs 699